Missionaries and governments established special institutions where Aboriginal people were given rations and, to varying degrees, training. As late as the early 1960s, about one third of those people counted as 'Aborigines' lived in such places.
Public servant Jeremy Long surveyed these institutions in the 1960s and summarised their main features:
'... one might conclude that the most important functions of settlements has been to keep many Aborigines and part-Aborigines away from the places where other Australians live. It would, however, be wrong to draw the further conclusion that in serving this function settlements have existed exclusively, or even primarily, for the convenience of non-Aboriginal Australians. As the colonies of immigrant settlement expanded over the continent in the nineteenth century the Aboriginal inhabitants of the land died out rapidly and they survived in any number only in areas where there were few immigrants or none at all. There are today [1960s] substantial and increasing numbers of Aborigines in the remoter parts of Australia largely because settlements were established in those areas, mainly by missionaries from about 1890 onwards, and if these settlements had not been established the Aboriginal population would certainly be much smaller than it is today.'
Jeremy Long distinguished two kinds of settlement or mission. Those in the more closely settled regions of sheep-raising and agriculture in South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland were not far from towns and most were 'to some extent integrated into the local communities'. Some had been missions but all were now government institutions. Those in the more sparsely populated north and centre of the continent included many that were still missions. Far from towns, the institutions of this second category provided a more encompassing environment of supervision:
'... the residents for the most part find their employment, their recreation, and their education on the settlement, and are born and die there.' Long, who had been responsible for helping to run such institutions in the Northern Territory, assured readers that in such "communities" Aborigines had "maintained a vigorous corporate life" within the supervisory framework. This set limits to the authority of those running the settlements. For example, when the Northern Territory Administration introduced communal dining rooms in Central Australian settlements in the late 1950s and early 1960s, they found that residents still preferred to eat in their own convivial family groups, around a fire. The persistence of such a 'corporate life' is a significant part of the land rights story. In the 1970s and 1980s, when residents of such places made land claims under the Northern Territory Land Rights Act, their testimony included unextinguished oral traditions of knowledge of their country.'
Keywords: Arnhem Land, Gove, humanitarians, immigration, Kakadu National Park, missionaries, New South Wales, Northern Territory, Queensland, rations, religion, reserves, settlements, South Australia, supervision, The Northern Territory Land Rights Act, Victoria, Yirrkala, 1890-1963
Long, Jeremy 1970, 'Aboriginal Settlements: a survey of institutional communities in Eastern Australia', Australian National University Press.
Author: Rowse, Tim and Graham, Trevor